Validating the accuracy and reliability of information we read online, both on the web and via email, is an essential literacy skill in the 21st century for adults as well as young people. An email I received this evening from someone in my family provides a dramatic case in point.
The email which was forwarded begins:
> This is fairly interesting…
> Who is Barack Obama?
> Probable U. S. presidential candidate, Barack
> Hussein Obama was born in
> Honolulu , Hawaii , to Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., a
> black MUSLIM from
> Nyangoma-Kogel , Kenya and Ann Dunham, a white
> ATHEIST from Wichita ,
> Kansas .
The message goes one to assert that Senator Obama’s father is a “radical Muslim,” and Obama is a Muslim himself. The focus of the message is to create fear about a possible Obama presidency and generate opposition to his candidacy among voters.
These allegations are serious. I would like to think everyone who receives an email like this will take the 15 seconds required to do a quick Snopes.com check to verify the information. The fact that this particular email, and others like them, are regularly forwarded along every day by well-meaning but poorly informed Internet users is distressing. I had a conversation with someone in my office just last week about Senator Obama’s candidacy, and her comment was, “I’m pretty concerned over all that Muslim stuff.” I am pretty sure email messages like this one planted the false seed of uncertainty which was the root of her “concerns.”
A fast search on Snopes for “Who is Barack Obama” brings up a through explanation which reveals this email to be false and misleading. As usual, the Snopes.com authors go through the claims included in this email point by point and include an extensive list of referenced sources at the bottom of the article:
Why do many people persist in forwarding along emails like this one, which can be VERY quickly debunked? I do not know all the reasons, but I suspect there are several keys:
- FEAR: Many people thrive on controversy and news which inspires or incites fear. Fear is a powerful motivator. When we allow ourselves to be directed by fear, rather than reason, we are naturally less able (physically) to make informed decisions and use logic. I think a primary reason people forward these types of messages rather than validating and debunking them is that they are AFRAID. Messages of FEAR often work. People get scared, and they are therefore malleable in the hands of the architects of the propaganda who wrote and disseminated the false, misleading, and fear-encouraging messages in the first place. Forwarding this message to other people is EXACTLY what the anti-Obama Presidency author of this fictitious email wants people to do. Those who allow themselves to directed by their fear play right into the hands of others who seek to manipulate and distort the truth to serve their own ends.
- LAZINESS: It’s easier to click the forward button and the send button rather than think critically. Critical thinking takes brain power. It takes energy. Many times, I think people (both young and old) tend to be lazy. Should I check out that claim with a quick trip to Snopes? Should I do a Google search on that message before I forward it to my entire address book? Of course you should. To fail in that requirement is to fall short in our obligations to support the dissemination of accurate and valid information. Sadly, laziness in thinking (or NOT thinking) is common in our society. This is not just true in many schools, it’s true of lots of people who long ago left the classroom.
- IGNORANCE: People don’t know how to validate information properly. Issues of fear and laziness aside, this reason is possibly one of the most pressing that we, as educators, should take seriously. Are we teaching our students (and learning with our students) how to validate information properly and thoroughly? Have we considered ourselves instruments of a dishonest propaganda machine, if we thoughtlessly forward on emails like this one to others? I wrote the article “Digital Literacy NOW!” for the TechEdge in Septebmer 2003, but it is every bit as applicable today in 2008 as it was five years ago.
Who will carry forward this banner of media literacy, critical thinking, and our ongoing need to validate information where you live and work? If not you, then who? Who will tell your relatives? Who will tell your principal? Who will tell the senior citizens living in your community, who may be among the most susceptible to inflammatory and misleading emails like this one?
Media literacy is the responsibility of us all. Accept the banner, and carry it forward. Whether or not it’s on your written lesson plan for today or tomorrow, it’s an essential skill that simply can’t wait till next year.
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